A year and a half ago, Kyle Larson NASCAR future was in serious jeopardy. On an iRacing stream with several notable racers, he was caught clear as day saying a racial slur. In the following hours, Larson lost everything. His ride with Chip Ganassi Racing, and the majority of his sponsors, all in the middle of a contract year. After some time trying to find forgiveness and an expanded stint on the dirt track scene, he found his second chance.
Rick Hendrick needed a new driver with Jimmie Johnson set to retire at the end of 2020. For years it had been speculated that Larson could find his way to the team at some point. Although he was a PR risk given the nature of his banishment, Hendrick could sponsor him through his dealership’s website, HendrickCars.com. With his reinstatement coming at the beginning of 2021, Larson had officially made it back to the NASCAR Cup Series.
It took Larson a few races to get acclimated to his new team and crew chief Cliff Daniels to start off. Once they won their first race together at Las Vegas, things began to click off at a historic rate. Entering the Championship Race in Phoenix, Larson won nine races and led a record 2474 laps (in a 36 race season). In addition to racking up 25 Top 10s and 19 Top 5s, while averaging a finish south of 10th. Entering the final race of the year, Larson was the Championship favorite, and for good reason.
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Duel in the Desert
Larson kicked off the weekend qualifying on pole for the finale, with teammate and title rival Chase Elliott second. The two Joe Gibbs Racing cars of Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr ended up sixth and 12th respectively. As the race began on Sunday, Elliott took the lead from Larson in the opening laps before an early caution came out. Despite the race being on lap eight, Larson opted to pit almost instantly for four tires. This move put Larson outside of the top 30, but another caution around 10 laps later brought the rest of the title combatants in. Cycling Larson up into the Top 5 in the process.
As the opening two stages came and went, it became clear that the two teams each had a clear strength and weakness. The two Hendrick cars appeared to be much better in short runs/the opening of long stints. The Gibbs’ cars however took over the longer things stayed green. With that said, Larson received an incidental boost during the second stage from his teammate Elliott. Running in first and second, Elliott got into the back of Larson and flared out his right rear quarter panel. Larson then became the best car on track on route to winning the stage.
"The No.5's got a parachute."
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 7, 2021
With all four title contenders upfront to begin Stage three, it was anyone’s ballgame. Truex ended up receiving a huge break, inheriting the lead after a caution while he was on pit road. Larson meanwhile got the bad end of things, moving to fourth. Larson on the ensuing stint became dead in the water, falling nearly four seconds off the pair of Gibbs’ Toyotas. But a piece of debris in the entrance to turn three changed everything.
One Final Hurdle
In the most literal sense, the biggest pit stop sequence of the season happened with just under 30 laps to go. In the previous sequence, Larson ended up losing a spot on pit road, something that absolutely could not happen here. His pit crew, which was one of NASCAR’s best all year needed to be just that one more time.
KYLE LARSON WINS THE RACE OFF PIT ROAD! #Championship4
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) November 7, 2021
One of the best NASCAR pit stops in the last couple of years given the circumstances. Going from fourth to first, Larson now situated himself in the catbird seat, choosing to restart on the outside of Hamlin. In what was the biggest restart of his life, Larson was up to the task and set sail. Hamlin and Elliott simply couldn’t keep up, but Truex was not willing to go down without a fight.
On a few occasions in the final stint, Truex managed to get very close to Larson but could not complete any sort of pass. The driver of the No. 19 made things interesting until the end, but it was simply not enough. Larson not only picked up his 10th win of the year but also secured the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Championship. One of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history is now in the books.
King of the Mountain
In the modern era of NASCAR, there are a razor-thin amount of individual seasons than Larson has put together. 10 race wins are the most by a driver since Johnson won the same amount in 2007. That included the Coca-Cola 600, Sonoma, Watkins Glen, the Bristol Night Race, and the season finale. Additionally, Larson also won this year’s All-Star Race at Texas. His five postseason wins also tie an all-time record with Tony Stewart in 2011. His 2581 laps lead is now the new bar for a record in a 36 race season. Not to mention his 26 Top 10s and 20 Top 5s are also excellent.
Larson did not just have an amazing year in NASCAR however, as he was just as good if not better on the dirt scene. In January, he won the Chili Bowl Nationals in Oklahoma, the Super Bowl of Midget Sprint Car racing, for the second year in a row. Additionally, Larson also won the two biggest events on the World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series schedule. Being the 37th Kings Royal at Eldora, and the 2021 running of the Knoxville Nationals. Not to mention the Bryan Clauson Memorial Midget Race, and one of Dirt Late Model’s premier events, the Prarie Dirt Classic.
In terms of winning big-name races in a single year, there may not be anything close to Larson’s 2021. If he won the WoO Championship, that would have been mind-numbing, but his schedule didn’t allow for it. The good news is that it was won this year by his brother-in-law Brad Sweet on Saturday evening at the WoO World Finals. The third in a row for the Kasey Kahne Racing driver.
The first thing for Larson now that his schedule has freed up is that he is donating a lot of money to a good cause. Before the year began, Larson promised to send money based on certain incentives to the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia. Larson has been connected to the program for quite some time, long before last year. He promised to send five thousand dollars for every Top 5 finish, along with five dollars for every lap he ran in the NASCAR Cup Series. Based on those incentives, Larson will unofficially send 145 thousand dollars to the UYRS.
Pertaining to NASCAR, Larson will now attempt to capture back-to-back Cup Series Championships, a feat completed just four times since 1990. Those to do so are Dale Earnhardt Sr (twice), Jeff Gordon, and Johnson (five consecutive). There are also a few NASCAR Crown Jewel races still unchecked. Being the Daytona 500 and Southern 500, along with the IMS Road Course race as well. He also will look to improve his standing on the all-time wins list. Although Larson sits 54th, he can get up to 32nd if he equals his 2021 win output. Currently, Larson sits at 16 career Cup wins.
With all that said there is still the elephant in the room, the Indianapolis 500. Larson has been linked to the world’s most prestigious race for quite some time now. Adding him to what could already be one of the most loaded fields in race history would make for an instant classic. Perhaps a reunion with Ganassi could be in the works? In any case, Larson just completed one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history with a slew of dirt track success to boot. The question now is have we even seen the best of Larson yet?
Congratulations to the best race car driver I’ve ever seen. @KyleLarsonRacin
— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) November 8, 2021
— Mario Andretti (@MarioAndretti) November 7, 2021
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images